Hobbes and Nietzsche: Sociobiologists?

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Hobbes and Nietzsche: Sociobiologists?

Jen Sheehan

With the advent of Darwin's theories of evolution and the rising popularity of biological science as the explanation of human origins, it is perhaps no surprise that philosophers began to tackle the notion of ethics and morals from an evolutionary perspective, eschewing reliance on religious texts and yet seeking to find in science the basis for such characteristics that have long been under the purview of religion and used to separate humanity from its fellow animals. While sociobiologists studied "the evolution of interrelations between organisms in pairs, groups, herds, colonies, [and] nations," both Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to derive the origins of such groups and nations and the foundation of their morality by using an biological evolutionary model (Dennett 483).

Hobbes and Nietzsche tell stories of their own making to explain how such "moral" civilizations were brought into being. In the Hobbesian version, humans once existed in an amoral state in which there was no concept of good and evil simply good and bad, with all ethics removed. For example, "although they distinguished a good spear from a bad spear...they had no concept of a good or bad person, a moral person, or a good act, a moral act or their contraries, villains and vices" ( Dennett 454). Mankind persisted in this "state of nature...nasty, brutish and short," Hobbes believed, until several enterprising members of the population arrived at the notion of a "social contract." Instead of remaining in constant competition with each other, humans began to band together outside of simple insular family groups for the protection and sustenance of all the state, in its nascent form.

Dennett draws attention to "Lynn Margulis' story of the eukaryotic revolution," which does provide a useful basis for comparison between the evolution of human civilization and the evolution of species (Dennet 454). "Throughout the Precambrian period," Ernst Mayr writes in What Evolution Is, "the rich diversity of protists gave rise to multicellular descendant, some of which then led to plants, fungi, and animals," and indeed the change from simple prokaryotes to the more complex eukaryotes, and from single-celled eukaryotes to multicellular eukaryotes, seems to mirror human development into ethical beings assuming that Hobbes' story is true (Mayr 60). The multicellular organisms, "which, thanks to a division of labor among a gang of specialist cells," could now pursue a more complex and vivid form of existence than its prokaryotic predecessors, were akin to the humans in Hobbes' story who established a social contract and a framework for ethical action so that the contract may be maintained; now with their component parts acting in harmony and in concert, the multicellular eukaryotes "could engage in Industry (oxygen-fired metabolism, in particular) and Arts (long-range perception and locomotion, and protective coloration, and so forth)" and achieve what most people would consider to be greater heights by our own anthropocentric point of view than the prokaryotes and their "nasty, brutish, short lives" (Dennet 454).

Friedrich Nietzsche, like Hobbes, attempted to develop his own story for the basis of ethics and morals. For him, such traits could only come into being after "'breeding' an animal with an innate capacity to keep a promise"; Nietzsche writes, "Buying and selling, together with their psychological appurtenances, are older even than the beginnings of any kind of social forms of organization and alliances" (Dennett 463). In this way, human societies were first able to form themselves but still lacked a sense of morality. In his account of the rise of civilization, Nietzsche states that the strong who ruled over the weak were "manipulated into subduing and civilizing themselves," so that "what had been good (old-style) became evil (new style) and what had been bad (old-style) became (morally) good (new-style)." However, while he was "inspired (or provoked) by Darwin" into responding to the Social Darwinists' (not Darwin's) notion of survival of the fittest, I hesitate to label him a sociobiologist as Dennett does. While he did study "the evolution of interrelations between organisms in pairs, groups, herds, colonies, [and] nations" as sociobiologists do, under Dennett's definition Nietzsche's story of the rise of human morals diverged greatly from the "eukaryotic revolution" that so closely paralleled the Hobbesian account. Both accounts, when applied to evolution, anthropomorphize the prokaryote to a certain extent. But the evolution of prokaryotes to more complex eukaryotes to even more complex multicellular eukaryotes does not seem to bear much resemblance to how Nietzsche envisions the advent of morals, starting with "how responsibility originated" with the breeding of "an animal with the right to make promises" and progressing to the devious manipulation of one segment of human society by another to effect the onset of morals (Dennett 463). Such deliberate action seems remote from the evolutionary process, in which blind chance and necessity had an equal hand in shaping the evolution of biological species.


Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Daniel C. Dennett. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996.

Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Perseus Book Groups, 2001.

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